Students at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto during the 2020-21 school year. (Photo/Deena Riddle)
Students at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto during the 2020-21 school year. (Photo/Deena Riddle)

Kehillah students must be vaxed. Other local Jewish schools are still weighing their options.

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Last Wednesday, California became the first state in the country to require educators at both public and private schools be vaccinated or get tested weekly. The mandate, however, left open the question about whether students who are eligible for the vaccine should be required to receive one.

Out of the seven Bay Area Jewish schools that responded to inquiries from J., only one — Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto — has implemented a full vaccine mandate for its eligible students, with medical and religious exemptions allowed.

At Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, students will be complying with the same state order required of educators: Be vaccinated or get tested once a week — along with a daily wellness check.

Portait of DDaisy Pellant, the new head of Kehillah School. She is 52, has red hair and glasses.
Daisy Pellant

Daisy Pellant, head of school at Kehillah since July 2020, told J. she decided to move beyond “strongly encouraging” vaccines to a mandate for the “well-being” of the community.

“We do think it is the right thing to do for the Kehillah community, the Bay Area, the United States and the world,” she said. “We’ve had an extremely positive response from our community about this.”

Based on survey responses from Kehillah families at the beginning of August, the student population is already “highly” vaccinated, she added.

“There were indications from the survey that our community would be in support of this decision” to mandate the vaccine, Pellant said. “It was my decision to make. It was backed by the community.”

In San Francisco, JCHS sent a survey to its student body on Aug. 2 to get a tally on how many people are vaccinated. According to Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, head of school at JCHS for nearly 14 years, a “substantial” 97% of students are inoculated.

Mary Ellen Hunt, head of enrollment management at JCHS, said the school’s vax-or-test policy was weighed over the summer and monitored as Covid cases have begun to rise in recent weeks.

I’m not gonna pull my kid out of JCHS because they don’t have a vaccine mandate, but I would feel safer if there was [one]

Michael C. Blacher, an S.F.-based attorney who specializes in education law, told J. in an email that before the delta variant, Jewish high schools in the state were not seriously considering vaccine mandates. But delta, he said, has been changing some administrators’ thinking.

“Before the delta variant, I think most schools — not just Jewish day schools — felt that there were better ways to increase vaccinations and maintain a safe environment than requiring vaccinations,” he wrote. “However, since the rapid spread of the delta variant and the increased risk of infection, more schools have opted to require vaccinations. What’s changed is not the law or the legal risks, but the virus.”

At least one JCHS parent, whose child is a 17-year-old rising senior, said she wished the school was implementing a full mandate. “I feel pretty strongly that high schools should mandate it,” Kelly Kozak said. “I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t.”

Kozak told J. she has an autoimmune disease and that her other son is unvaccinated, as he is only 10 years old, and that other families probably face similar issues. “We don’t always know what is going on in people’s families and who is at risk,” she said. “I think [getting vaccinated] is a larger civic responsibility.”

Naomi Laguana, whose son is a rising senior at JCHS — where classes are to start on Aug. 26 (at Kehillah, it’s Aug. 19) — said she thinks the school’s policy has made the situation “complicated.”

“Unless you have some sort of medical [or] personal issue, I am a fan of the vaccine and think it would be lovely if it was mandated,” said Laguana, who said she considers the Covid vaccine to be like other immunizations that the state requires of students.

“At the same time, I’m not gonna pull my kid out of JCHS because they don’t have a vaccine mandate, but I would feel safer if there was [one],” she said.

Yosef Rosen teaching a senior seminar, Issues in Jewish Thought, at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. (Photo/Courtesy JCHS)
Yosef Rosen teaching a senior seminar, Issues in Jewish Thought, at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. (Photo/Courtesy JCHS)

The five K-8 Jewish day schools in the area that replied to queries from J. said that they are not requiring vaccine-eligible students, those 12 and older — who make up roughly half of sixth grade and almost all of the seventh and eighth grades — to get the vaccine.

However, administrators at some of those schools — Oakland Hebrew Day School, Brandeis Marin, Brandeis School of San Francisco, South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale and Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos — have encouraged eligible students to get the vaccine, and added that their policies could certainly change.

Dan Glass
Dan Glass

At Brandeis School, head of school Dan Glass said he would have considered mandating vaccines had he discovered that his students, teachers and parents were reluctant to get them.

“That’s just not the case,” said Glass, who said that a large number of students — somewhere around 95% of those 12 and up — are already vaccinated, based on rough data the school has collected.

Glass did say that if the Food and Drug Administration changes its emergency authorization of the three vaccines and gives them full approval, a school requirement might follow.

“If [the] FDA [gives] permanent approval for [the] 12-and-up crowd, and it looks like there’s a shift among K-8 schools, we might make it mandatory and not just rely on the high vaccination numbers among the community,” Glass said.

Rabbi Perry Tirschwell
Rabbi Perry Tirschwell

In Sunnyvale, Rabbi Perry Tirschwell of South Peninsula Hebrew Day School said his school, which is on 5 acres and “very spread out,” is different from most other K-8 schools. That said, SPHDS is putting into place protocols such as masks, HEPA filters and requiring students to eat outside.

“We are particularly well set up for Covid,” Tirschwell said. “We know this disease. I’ve met this disease.”

Tirschwell did add that if he was principal at a high school, he might have different policies surrounding a vaccine, but that at the moment, he doesn’t feel it is necessary to implement a  stricter requirement.

Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City and Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette did not respond to inquiries by J. Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto does not have a policy to share at this time, a spokesperson said.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.